Senior Power: Let Me Down Easy

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Monday June 20, 2011 - 10:08:00 AM

In 1981, Anna Deavere Smith began to write and perform On the Road: A Search for American Character series of one-person plays. Using transcripts from interviews with a variety of people, she wove their stories together without changing their words. She spoke not only what her interviewees said but was careful to understand how they said it, noting every pause and body language. Critics called it ground-breaking, but Smith traced her work directly to the African storytelling tradition of the griot, a storyteller in western Africa who perpetuates the oral tradition and history of a village or family.

Sixty-one year old Anna Deavere Smith is an acclaimed actor-writer-producer of unique solo documentaries. She is performing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through July 10th in her creation, Let Me Down Easy.  

It’s about health and health care, in particular, the availability of medical insurance, which, in the United States, is both political and complicated. In particular, it’s about the availability of medical insurance. The U.S. is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have insurance coverage. In 2007, 15.3% of the population (45.7 mil people) lacked any form of health insurance. 


Documentary theater, or docudrama, is centuries old theater that uses nonfiction interviews (or newspapers) to create a script based on real events and people. All of the people, both well-known and everyday, represented in Let Me Down Easy are real. It has been said that Smith caricatures, but she does not exaggerate or distort, and she is not an impersonator. She chooses to use their exact words to tell their stories.  

Each person in this repertoire has a different perspective, experiences, feelings… about health and health care... former Texas Governor, feminist Democrat Ann Richards who died at age 73. (Richards’ advocacy in behalf of osteoporotic persons like herself was overlooked, so in 2003 she published I’mNot Slowing Down: Winning My Battle With Osteoporosis; shedied from complications of esophageal cancer in 2006.) Sixty-eight year old supermodel Lauren Hutton. Cyclist and cancer advocate (born 1971) Lance Armstrong. A New Orleans physician during Hurricane Katrina, the mother of a young woman with AIDS, a minister, a rodeo rider, a prize fighter…  

In her 2000 book, Talk to Me; Listening Between the Lines, Anna Deavere Smith focuses on contemporary politics and Washington, D.C. Her interviews usually last from 45 minutes to an hour. One of her interviewees proffered “three questions that will ensure that their syntax will change in the course of an hour:” Have you ever come close to death? Do you know the circumstances of your birth? Have you ever been accused of something that you did not do? About their first day of school was also suggested as yielding good stuff. 

House Arrest, her recent play, is subtitled A Search for the American Character in and Around the White House, Past and Present. It explores the U. S.national identity as revealed by the American presidency, past and present. “Too tall McCall” was the way The American President in 1995 referred to White House press secretary Robin McCall, who serendipitously became TV’s National Security Advisor Nancy McNally in The West Wing, 2000–2006.  

Smith goes way back as a performer—remember Ms. Gloria Akalitus in the TV series R.N. Nurse Jackie, and Glamorama shampoo girl Hazel in All My Children? The extensive list of her honors and accomplishments includes an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and a Stanford University Professorship of the Arts. She was nominated for two 1994 Tony Awards— as Best Actress in a play and as Best Play author, of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play Fires in the Mirror. 

In 1997 Anna Deavere Smith established the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard University, a think and do tank where artists would make works about social change. It is now being redesigned. The Institute hosts a series of events featuring artists discussing their work and engaging audiences in conversations about art and social issues.  


Anna Deavere Smith was born in Baltimore. Her parents were a coffee merchant and an elementary schoolteacher. Her BA is from Beaver College [now Arcadia University] in Pennsylvania, where she was introduced to the civil rights movement and black activism. After college, she moved to San Francisco to live with her aunt, who encouraged her to attend the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), where she earned her MFA in 1977. For additional biographical information, I recommend the 2nd edition of Black Women in America, African American National Biography, and TheEncyclopedia of African American History. 



Laguna Woods, California: “Joe Schwartz is a 90-year-old great-grandfather of three who enjoys a few puffs of pot each night before he crawls into bed in the Southern California retirement community he calls home. The World War II veteran smokes the drug to alleviate debilitating nausea and is one of about 150 senior citizens on this sprawling, 18,000-person gated campus who belongs to athriving - and controversial -medical marijuana collective operating here, in the middle of one of the largest retirement communities in the United States...” [“Seniors' medical pot collective stirs up trouble,” by Gillian Flaccus. Sacramento Bee June 8, 2011. ] 

In the hills of Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood, at 4200 Thomas Lake Harris Dr., developers of the nation's first gay and lesbian retirement community with continuing care have won City approval. Most of the Fountaingrove Lodge project will not be built for 18 months. It will have a care center for residents suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia. [“Retirement home for gays and lesbians debuts in Fountaingrove,” by Robert Digitale. The Press Democrat. June 15, 2011] 


In 2003, AARP, the “non-profit” lobbying for seniors organization, backed a change in Medicare that headed the health insurance program down a path toward privatization, and increased costs for retirees and revenues for the insurance plans offered by AARP. Costs for health care under private, for-profit plans have increased yearly. According to the Wall Street Journal, AARP is ready to accept cuts to Social Security benefits — just as budget negotiations reach a critical tipping point. Social Security has nothing to do with the federal budget. ["AARP Willing To Negotiate On Retirement Age," by Arthur Delaney. (Huffington Post, June 17, 2011). “Key Seniors Association Pivots on Benefit Cut”. (Wall Street Journal, front page, June 17, 2011.)] 


MARK YOUR CALENDAR: June-July-August 2011 Call to confirm, date, time and place: 

Wednesday, June 22 1:30 P.M. - 2:30 P.M. Albany branch of the Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Ave. Great Books Discussion Group meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month. This month's book is A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Rosalie Gonzales facilitates the discussion. Come to one meeting, or all meetings. Books are available at the Library. (510) 526-3720 x16  

Wednesday, June 22 5:30 – 8:30 P.M. evening programs begin at Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Avenue, Alameda. 747-7506.  

Thursday, June 23 1:30 P.M. Mastick Senior Center. Music Appreciation Class discussion and performance “Leroy Anderson: American’s Master of Light Music.” 

Saturday, June 25 10 A.M. – 12 Noon. San Francisco OWL [Older Women’s League] chapter. Mechanics Institute, 57 Post Street, 4th Floor (1/3 block from Market & Montgomery BART/MUNI) “Does Your Family Know Where Your Stuff Is? Organizing your Personal Documents.” Speaker Julie Jones, a credentialed teacher, has created the Estate Documents Organizer, an administrative and personal record-keeping resource to manage the many details of personal, financial, legal and medical affairs. (415) 989-4422.  

Tuesday, June 28 3-4 P.M. Tea and Cookies at the Central Berkeley Public Library. 2090 Kittredge. A book club for people who want to share the books they have read. (Monthly on the 4th Tuesday ) (510) 981-6100. Also July 26. 

Tuesday, June 28 1 P.M. Mastick Senior Center. California Relay Service & YOU! 

A representative from Hamilton Relay (one of two providers of the free California Relay Service offered through the California Public Utilities Commission) will explain the various programs available. Register in the Mastick Office or call 747-7506. 


Wednesday, June 29. 2 – 3:30pm Become a genealogical super sleuth at the Berkeley Public Library, ready to research your family history. Electronic Classroom of the Central Library for the popular introduction to, an online resource that offers searchable census tracts, immigration records, photos, stories and more. (510) 981-6100. 

Wednesday, June 29 Noon – 1 P.M. Playreaders at Central Berkeley Public Library. Meets weekly to read aloud from great lays, changing parts frequently. Intended for adult participants.  

Wednesday, June 29 6 P.M. Mastick Senior Center, Alameda. Movie: Get Low: A True Tall Tale. 

Wednesday, July 6 Noon-1 P.M. End of Life Planning workshop at Central Berkeley Public Library. Responsible end-of-life planning can save heartache and help preserve family legacy. Learn the basics about wills, trusts, powers of attorney, advanced health care directives, etc. in a supportive setting. Also August 6. 

Tuesday, July 12 9 A.M. Mastick Senior Center, Alameda. Cane Do. Join John Dexheimer for self-defense and exercise. This specialized senior self-defense training class incorporates the use of a cane. Learn to hold, twirl, strike, poke, jab and block while exercising with your cane. Wear comfortable clothing and bring your cane! Sign up in the Mastick Office. A suggested donation of $3 per person is appreciated. 

Thursday, July 14 1 P.M. Mastick Senior Center, Alameda. Drumming Circle. Join the Mercy Retirement Community Drum Circle for a musical experience. Drumming is known to improve circulation in the hands and body, loosen stiff joints in the shoulders, arms, and wrists, and stimulate the mind. Sign up in the Mastick Office. Free. 

Friday, July 15 8 A.M. – 2 P.M. Compassion & Choices of Northern California is a participant in the Healthy Living Festival. Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Road. For information, email 

Wednesday, July 20 1:30 P.M. Berkeley Commission on Aging. Meets on 3rd Wednesday at South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis. Check to confirm (510) 981-5178.  

Wednesdays, beginning in August – 10:30-12 noon Parkinson's Yoga & the Art of Moving. Jewish Community Center East Bay – Oakland Branch, 5811 Racine St. (58th & Telegraph). $120./month. Enhance mental focus, balance, strength, flexibility, voice function, and peace of mind through the Mind/Body practices of Yoga, Meditation, Toning, Chanting and Specific Movement Techniques. Perform the activities of daily living with greater ease, happiness, safety and effectiveness. Instructors Carol Fisher, RYI with John Argue. (925) 566-4181. 

Thursday, August 4 1:30 P.M. – 2:45 P.M. Emergency Preparedness. Free program for older adults, caregivers and service providers. Colleen Campbell, Senior Injury Prevention Coordinator, will discuss materials, display a sample GO KIT, lead discussion. Alameda County Library Albany branch, 1247 Marin Av. Contact: Ronnie Davis (510) 526-3720 x16. Also at other branches. 

Saturday, August 6 11 A.M. End of Life Planning Workshop. West Berkeley Public Library, 1125 University.  

Wednesday, August 10 10 A.M – 2 P.M. Compassion & Choices of Northern California is a participant in the Healthy Aging Fair Festival. Chabot College, 25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward. Email 

Saturday, August 20 11 A.M. Landlord /Tenant Counseling. Central Berkeley Public Library. Also Sept. 17.  

Tuesday, Sept 27 3 PM Tea and Cookies. Book club. Central Berkeley Public Library. 

Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at Please, no phone calls.